AN ESSAY FOR THE DAY: Nature’s Means & Ends

The crab apple tree overlooking the back deck yet again has come into full bloom. And scores of petunias are planted in hanging baskets and in pots on the front porch.

Indeed, Shakespearean “rough winds” have shaken “the darling buds of May” numerous times this spring. But these flowers have been quite hardy, showing great perseverance. For they know they have to stick around, at least through the end of this essay, to tell an important story. Actually, two.

The deck, built in 1994 and doubled in size in 2008, was situated to take advantage of the unusually large crab apple. Its overarching canopy of brilliant white spring blooms has graced this wonderful outdoor living space every spring for the last quarter-century. Save one.

May 2002 arrived with the usual promise. But the crab apple awoke from its winter slumbers with great ambiguity. It began to leaf, as per usual, first, before any blooms. But the blooms never came. Not one.

Nature was delivering a message. Dad died by the middle of the month — pretty much on the exact day that those crab apple blooms should have been at their zenith.

The crab apple has bloomed, robustly, every year since. Those blooms are a celebration of his life – and a reminder that nature speaks to us in ways we might never have fathomed.

Those petunias not only are an ode to nature but to the nature of a grand departed lady. And each spring about this time, they recount their story to anyone willing to listen. (Honest, I’ve heard them “Psssst!”-down passers-by.)

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Grandma Nick, my paternal great-grandmother, lived in Warwood, just up Glenns Run (as we used to refer to Cherry Hill Road). Every Mother’s Day for as long as I can remember as a kid, she would bring to me at our house in Colerain a single petunia.

Soon to turn 10, my childhood curiosity finally having gotten the better of a precocious me, I asked what was behind her gift of that annual petunia in the peat pot. “Because you’re my youngest great-grandson,” she responded, matter-of-factly.

But likely sensing my skepticism, she broke out into an “Oh, I don’t know” chuckle.

Oh, but I nonetheless learned a valuable lesson (and, as an aside, from the woman who, reputedly, was involved in the first automobile-streetcar accident in Wheeling): You really don’t have to have a reason to give anyone a flower on any given day.

And to this very day, petunias are an integral part of my Mays, planted around Mother’s Day in Grandma Nick’s honor.

“Nature is no spendthrift,” reminded Ralph Waldo Emerson, “but it takes the shortest way to her ends.” Which usually, in sadness and in joy, means straight through our hearts.

• Colin McNickle, the retired editorial page editor of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, now is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. He began his journalism career at local newspapers and radio stations. A 1976 graduate of Martins Ferry High School, he grew up in Colerain.